District Court Judge Confused Prudential and Subject-Matter Jurisdiction Leading to Premature Dismissal, Holds Fifth Circuit

In Abraugh v. Altimus, No. 21-30205 (5th Cir. Feb. 14, 2022), the Fifth Circuit holds that the district court cut short a plaintiff’s opportunity to proceed with her complaint by ruling erroneously that there was no subject-matter jurisdiction over the claim.

“Karen Abraugh brought this suit over the wrongful death of her son Randall. Authorities booked Randall into the Bossier Maximum Security Facility as a pretrial detainee. He was both medicated and intoxicated at the time, and he had a history of mental health treatment.” While in custody, he was found hanged in his jail cell; he died from his injuries.

The mother filed a complaint on her own behalf and for her son’s estate. “The complaint asserted civil rights violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, wrongful death and survival claims under Louisiana law, and other state-law claims against various defendants whom she alleges were responsible for her son’s death.” She later added the son’s heirs, a surviving spouse and minor child.

The district court dismissed, holding that the mother “Karen lacked Article III standing to bring this suit,” because “Louisiana law does not provide her with a right of action to pursue these claims.”

The Fifth Circuit reverses. The panel acknowledges that state law informs whether a plaintiff can state a wrongful-death claim under section 1983, and that under Louisiana law the surviving spouse and child have priority over a surviving parent. “Karen would be allowed to sue under Louisiana law, but for the fact that there are other individuals who enjoy superior status under the governing provisions. Indeed, she concedes as much.”

The district court, though, drew the wrong conclusion about its subject-matter jurisdiction from these conditions. “To be sure, the district court did not err in describing her inability to sue under Louisiana law as a defect of ‘standing.’ But it is a defect of prudential standing, not Article III standing. And the difference matters here, because Article III standing is the only kind of standing required before a federal district court can exercise subject matter jurisdiction.”

The panel recognizes an intra-circuit split in its unpublished opinions about whether a “lack of ‘standing’ to bring a § 1983 claim under a state’s wrongful death or survival statute implicate subject matter jurisdiction?” The panel holds that it does not.

“[T]hat Karen was not the proper plaintiff to bring this action under Louisiana law does not mean that she lacked Article III standing . . . . Our sister circuits have held that a child has Article III standing to file suit over the wrongful death of a parent . . . . We presume that similar logic would govern a suit filed by a parent over the wrongful death of a child. And in any event, Karen has also sufficiently alleged Article III standing in her capacity as the administrator of her son’s estate. The estate has suffered an injury that the defendants are allegedly responsible for, and it seeks redress in the form of money damages.”

The defendants also argued that the plaintiff forfeited this jurisdictional argument by not raising it. While “[w]e do not have a constitutional duty to accept subject matter jurisdiction based on theories not actually presented by the parties,” here the plaintiff repeatedly (if imperfectly) argued that the district court erred by dismissing the case on subject-matter jurisdiction grounds. It was enough that she raised the argument and cited authority in support (even though the authority turned out not to be on point).

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